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Cleveland Watkiss in Michael Palin's popular jazz-infused comic opera The Weekend

Image: Cleveland Watkiss

Virtuoso vocalist and actor Cleveland Watkiss has performed with the most incredible eclectic mix of musicians - from The Who, Bjork, Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder, to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He's now teamed up with Highbury Opera Theatre to perform in Michael Palin’s popular play about one man’s quest to avoid a family gathering which has aptly been adapted into a jazz-infused comic opera.

Run-Riot: How did you come to be involved in The Weekend by Highbury Opera Theatre?
Cleveland Watkiss:
I got involved through my dear friend, Scott Stroman, who's my former head of jazz at Guildhall, when I was there back in the 80s. And he contacted me and said, one of the singers they had before was pulling out and he said, you know, I really need someone to cover this part. I said, Yeah.
Run-Riot: Can you tell us a bit about your character and the story of the piece?
I'm playing Hugh Bedales, The Harley Street Podiatrist. The story revolves around this dysfunctional family, and there's this party being hosted. I've been invited, and I've become the centre of all these women at the party, and I'm telling them about what I do and they all want to come down Harley street and have their feet sorted out. And I'm having an affair with someone there. They don't know about it, but  then start to find out. There's all these kind of sub-plots going on within this party. And then arguments and conversations and disputes. There's a point where it gets so heated and intense, and I just look at my watch and I’m "I'm outta here man, it's all gone real pear shaped here”.

It's quite humorous, you know? There's a lot of humour in there. And interesting music, of course. I really love what Scott's written here, some really fantastic music. It's a mixture of jazz and opera, which is a genre I've been exploring for the last decade or so through my work with Julian Joseph, who has written some jazz operas that I've been featured in. So it's an area that I'm familiar with, and excited about as well. This whole idea of a jazz opera. In fact, I was looking at this preview today of the great Terence Blanchard, the trumpet player in America, and he's just written a jazz opera. And I saw the trailer for it and it looks absolutely stunning. The sound and the visuals of this trailer. I think it opens in America in October, and I just can't wait to see it. I'll try and get out there to see it. It just looks really incredible. So yeah, check it out, it's called Fire Shut up In My Bones.
Run-Riot: Opera is often perceived as a very serious and high-brow art form, how do more light-hearted productions like The Weekend feature in the opera ecology?
I think that because it's a mixture of professionals and amateurs, and you have quite a community base as well; Scott's been running the choir for many years.

For me with all art, the element of it being so communal, and community based and just having roots in drawing in the energy from the community, I think that's a really important thing. Yeah, opera does have that highbrow kind of image, but I think that's changing. You've got Chineke! Orchestra to promote more people from black and Asian backgrounds and stuff. So I think that is moving, it's changing, you know, we're moving into the 21st century, if you like. Because everyone should have exposure to art, regardless of where you come from or your background. It shouldn't just be for rich, elite people. That, to me, is nonsense. I like the direction and the new energies and faces that are popping up in this world, this classical and opera world.
Run-Riot: Highbury Opera Theatre pride themselves on combining professionals such as yourself and amateur performers, plus you also work with SingUp to train new singers – why are you so passionate about education?
I've always been passionate about education, I think it's how you stay fresh and relevant when you're passing information on to students. But at the same time, I really have a passion for sharing my extensive knowledge of my experiences working in different vocal settings. I also do vocal improvisation workshops as well, which I feel is really important for all singers. Just this idea that improvisation is something that we all do anyway naturally, I'm doing right now. We're having a conversation based on us, the common language that we've learned, but we're flowing in the moment with language.

And music has a similar line and tenure, in that you study and you learn all the different cadences and structures of music and then there comes a point where you can just be free with it in the moment and just move (sings) "make something from air and just make it whatever I want it to be". See, so I’m just improvising, I'm using my understanding of melody and rhythm and harmony, and just allowing it to be flowing in a moment just as I'm using words right now, (sings) "as I'm speaking to you, I can attach your melody to the words I'm saying to you. I can make up melodies based on the moment and I can change it and improvise". So it's fluid like that, music is that immediate and spontaneous. And I try to impart that to my students you know, just give them that, understanding that it's all music. Everything is vibration, everything is sound, everything has a rhythm or melody, tempo. It's all there, it's happening all around us, the sound of cars, the sound of planes, there's an orchestra going on right now. All this orchestral stuff going on all around us if you tune in and be present.
Run-Riot: You’ve performed with the most incredible eclectic mix of musicians - from The Who, Bjork, Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder, to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – what is the best thing about having such a varied career? Is there a genre you’d like to try/do more of?
Well, I've just been fortunate and also open to exploring sound and different styles of music. And, you know, I'm still in that space, I'm still interested in working with musicians from different parts of the world. I mean, most of my work has been collaborative, throughout my career, and that's still true and I love that. I love the idea of working with someone from Russia or Brazil, Ireland, wherever - you just find some kind of common ground within the language that we understand – music - and we're able to create something new or fresh.  To be able to travel and work with musicians from all over the world is such an awesome blessing. And that's a lifelong preoccupation for me.
Run-Riot: After such a difficult couple of years for the arts, what are you looking forward to for the rest of the year and into 2022?
I'm looking forward to the rest of the year, writing some new music, which I'm doing, just getting some new equipment in my studio, the bits and pieces that I need to get in the studio. And also, we're also finishing a couple of projects that I'm working on. One project I'm working on at the moment is called The Great Jamaican Songbook, I've just finished recording that and I'm mixing it at the moment. That should be released in March/April of next year, and doing little tour around the UK. We've got a couple of singles probably coming out before for Christmas. So yeah, I'm just kind of building up towards getting that project up and out and moving.


The Weekend
25 – 27 September 2021
Bloomsbury Theatre
15 Gordon Street
London, WC1H 0AH
25 & Sep 7:30pm
26 Sep 4:00pm and 7:30pm

Tickets: ucl.ac.uk

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